Qualifying Report: We're back, with a series sponsor, a new engine, a lot of new drivers and no clear pre-season favourite. It's going to be interesting, that's for sure. There are a lot of questions hanging over the 2006 F3 series. The...
We're back, with a series sponsor, a new engine, a lot of new drivers and no clear pre-season favourite. It's going to be interesting, that's for sure.
There are a lot of questions hanging over the 2006 F3 series. The main one remains that of engine choice. Will the all-conquering Mercedes unit prove invincible, or will Mugen-Honda raise their game further in response to the German unit appearing as the engine to have in 2006? Will Carlin be the team to beat, or can Raikkonen Robertson Racing build on the promise of last year and take the top slot? There has been much talk, but today the talking stopped and everyone had to put their money where their mouths were.
The weather was cloudy but dry, so you might have expected a general rush for the track, this being the first meeting of the year. Oddly enough there didn't seem to be a huge amount of enthusiasm for getting out there. Some drivers were excused from an early appearance, particularly Rodolfo Avila (Performance Racing), the Macanese driver having crashed comprehensively at Island during Friday's testing session. Given that the car ended up on the wrong side of the barriers, and pretty much tore itself apart, it took some fixing. The Performance boys had to set about replacing pretty much everything, and finally finished the repair job at 5am on Saturday, before going back to their hotel to sleep for an hour. And to add to the fun, Avila wasn't the only one in the wars on Friday. Jonathan Kennard (Alan Docking Racing) was also left with a heavily damaged car after he went off big time at Cascades. They both made it into the session, though in the case of Avila it was pretty academic. The car wasn't ready until the last half of the session, and he simply went out to make sure he covered the three laps necessary to qualify for the race. He was never likely to set a competitive time, especially as his hand was badly swollen after the accident. Kennard, on the other hand, was the first driver out on the track, presumably wanting to maximise his track time.
The first to look competitive, on the other hand, was Double R's Stephen Jelley. After a less than stellar 2005, Jelley wants to show the world what he's capable of. He certainly seemed to be setting about it the right way. With just a few runners on the track this early in the morning, he promptly set the target time for the session.
Meanwhile, Cristiano Morgado (Fluid Motorsport) was on top of the National Class category and looked as if he might take some beating. However, it was a little early to tell at this stage, as on 11 of the 22 cars entered were actually out. Jelley was merrily making the most of the traffic-free conditions and continued to lower the times, getting into the 1.36s very early on, closely followed (at this stage anyway) by the Dutch rookie, Dennis Retera (T-Sport). Kennard was soon matching Jelley's pace as well, while Martin Kudzak (Fluid Motorsport) was the recipient of the orange and black flag, indicating there was a mechanical problem with his car. The Swede looked out of his depth and technical problems were not helping him.
In the National Class, Juho Annala (Performance Racing), newly escaped from Finnish military service and lighter and fitter than he was last season, was briefly at the top of the timesheets, but Morgado wasn't about to let him keep it if there was anything he could do about the Finn. There was; the South African was back on class pole mere seconds later.
In the Championship Class things were a bit odd of a sudden. Keiko Ihara (Carlin Motorsport) was now 6th, ahead of Bruno Senna (Raikkonen Robertson Racing), while Jelley was still heading the order from Kennard and Retera. There was an abnormal slant to all of this, even taking into account the fact that Jelley has always had the talent (regardless of what happened last season). Things started to look rather more normal when Senna shot to 2nd, despite tripping over Yelmer Buurman (Fortec Motorsport) at Deer Leap, the inexperienced Dutchman still finding his feet in this formula.
With a third of the session gone, the rest of the Carlin boys came out to play. Oliver Jarvis had been fastest in testing, to the surprise of the Mercedes-powered teams, but to no one's surprise at Carlin. Christian Bakkerud, the de facto team leader with the defection of Charlie Kimball to the Euroseries this year, had not had such a good day, losing battery power and not being able to make use of more than one set of tyres, and was keen to make up for it now. The third Carlin runner to emerge at this point was Maro Engel, the German having his first run on this circuit. While Jelley and Senna continued to lock out the front row for Double R, and Retera and Kennard fought over 3rd place, the Carlin assault began, with Engel grabbing 6th on his first flying lap.
At the same time, the National Class battle was really hotting up, with Rodolfo Gonzalez grabbing the pole from Annala, who was looking much better than he did last year with Alan Docking Racing. However, all eyes were on the Championship Class battle, as Jarvis slotted in to 10th, and Charlie Hollings (Fortec Motorsport) also started to feature in the top ten. The Yorkshireman got his deal together late, which meant he'd spent most of Friday trying to get the car to his liking. Now he was at a disadvantage because he lacked mileage. It didn't stop him taking a temporary 5th place, though it looked as if he still had a lot of work to do. Meanwhile, provisional poleman Jelley was still busy raising the bar, though his team-mate Senna was in hot pursuit now, really pushing the car to its limits.
Fastest rookie, in 3rd place, was now Engel, the youngster really flying for one who is new to the circuits and the formula. Senna, meanwhile, had taken pole from Jelley, which made the order Senna from Jelley, Engel, Retera and Kennard. Hollings was still pressing on though, claiming 4th, only to get pushed down a place when Mike Conway, in the third of the Double R cars, decided he'd like to join his team-mates, and took 3rd, making a Double R lockout, at least for a while. The trouble was, Ollie Jarvis was having none of it, and he grabbed 3rd from Conway, only to have Engel take it from him a lap later, Kennard, meanwhile, was hanging in there too, and was 4th, while Buurman grabbed 5th, and Conway came back to edge Engel back to 4th. A jet-lagged Mexican now felt the need to join in the fun. Having been deported twice in a month for not having his work permit in order, Salvador Duran (Hitech Racing) might have been having trouble figuring out where he was, but he knew enough to grab 5th. Of course, other people also had things to say about this, and Jarvis was among them, the latest Autosport young driver of the year fighting back to again claim 4th. It was all still up for grabs, including the pole position. However, that was soon removed from the equation after an on-the- limit-and-possibly-beyond-it effort from Senna. He was fast through the first sector, and that speed was still there when he broke the timing beam to go half a second faster than Jelley. It wasn't beyond the Englishman's reach, but the Brazilian was looking incredibly confident in the car. With the air warming up, and the tyres reaching their limits, it looked unlikely that there would be a successful challenge in the second half of the session. In fact, the changes were beginning to dry up, with one or two exceptions.
Among the exceptions was James Walker (Hitech Racing), who had been late out on the track. The Englishman, back for his third season, was 7th at the end of his first real flying lap, and a lap later was 3rd.
And so, at the halfway mark, the top ten was Senna, Jelley, Walker, Conway, Jarvis, Engel, Duran, Buurman, and almost unnoticed Stuart Hall (Fortec Motorsport) and Gonzalez. It looked as if the Double R boys would go unchallenged, though the Carlin lads might still have something in reserve, as might one or two others. While Buurman moved up to 7th, Jarvis claimed 3rd. It looked as if he might just be able to do something; Bakkerud, on the other hand, had been having trouble with the slower runners, first having Kudzak foul up a lap for him, and then being baulked by Kennard. As a result, 7th was the best he could manage. Meanwhile, Jarvis's sector times were coming down, but he couldn't quite find the speed needed to get ahead of Senna or Jelley. Buurman was still improving and he and Bakkerud were locked in battle over 6th, as they took it in turns to snatch that place.
Senna and Jelley were already done for the day, both of them in the pits and out of their cars. It looked as if the decision to get out early had been the correct one, and their retreat from the fray seemed to signal a general exit. Bakkerud and Buurman were still out there, as was Conway, the pre-season favourite for many, who was 5th now, and wanting to get back on terms with Senna if he could. Jarvis was clearly certain he had nothing left in the tank, so he too pitted, while Bakkerud continued to slug it out, as frustrated with his position as Conway was with his.
And that was pretty much it, apart from Avila going out to qualify and Ricardo Teixeira (Carlin Motorsport) finding a little speed to go 4th in the National Class. Otherwise, Conway, Bakkerud and Retera all improved their times, but not their positions, and the field thinned out to the point where there was hardly anyone out there by the time the chequered flag was hung out.
Almost inevitably, perhaps, Double R Racing led the field, with Senna claiming the season's first pole, from Jelley, Jarvis, Walker, a disappointed Conway, Buurman, and infuriated Bakkerud, Engel, Hall and Duran. James Jakes (Hitech Racing) was 11th, ahead of Alberto Valerio (Cesario F3), and National Class poleman, Gonzalez. 14th was Kennard, from Hollings, Retera, Annala, Morgado, Ihara and Teixeira. 21st was Kudzak and Avila brought up the rear, the Macanese last seen heading off to the medical centre in search of an ice pack for his thumb.
With a day off between qualifying and race day, there are still a lot of unanswered questions hanging over this season.